Photos by Randy Royal (Irons & Ladders)
By Dan Kerrigan
Increasing the emphasis and attention given to the Vent-Enter-Isolate-Search (VEIS) tactic at structure fires is a good thing.
There are good reasons for initiating VEIS. At marginal fires, it allows us at least some time to complete primary searches, even if only some portions of the structure are entered. Also, if we’re trained properly, it’s quickly implemented. But, most importantly, it’s a common-sense approach. Going (based on available information) directly to where the victim is supposed to be reduces the time between arrival and contact with that victim, and it often provides a quick and direct path out of the immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH) atmosphere. Ultimately, if successful, the victim’s chances of survival increase because of his reduced exposure to toxic gases and fire. Of course, this tactic does not come without increased risk to firefighters.
Assigning a search team to VEIS should not be taken lightly. Firefighters are entering a hazardous atmosphere without the protection of a hoseline and, often, above an uncontrolled fire. It’s important not only that they are well-trained in in general firefighting tactics and fire behavior but that they also master the specific techniques needed to make VEIS effective. It’s also important that the incident commander (IC) and the engine company boss be willing and able to adjust their suppression tactics in support of the VEIS operation.
The roles of the engine company are static. Primarily, we need to get water to the fire (secure a water supply) and locate, confine, and extinguish said fire using the appropriate methods based on conditions and available staffing. Accomplishing these tasks quickly and efficiently as a well-oiled team makes everything else on the fireground go more smoothly.
Photo by Anthony Avillo.
Engine Company Considerations
There are many situations when the protection of a hoseline is not immediately available and that VEIS will be assigned anyway (based on available information and the potential viability of victims), but when the engine company is on scene and the ability to place a hoseline in service quickly in support of VEIS is an option, it’s critical that the focus be on protecting viable victims and search teams that may be operating independently of our hoselines. That being said, there are many considerations that have to be addressed, which follow:
- Where is the fire and what’s the most efficient way of getting to it?
- Where is the VEIS entry point and how does this relate to fire location and spread potential? (As Chief P.J. Norwood points out HERE, VEIS isn’t just for the second floor and above.)
- What is your available staffing? (How many lines can you place in service in two minutes or less?)
- Is the engine company going to be the VEIS team, or is there another company assigned to this task?
- Once VEIS is assigned, is it communicated clearly to all companies on the fireground?
These factors and more will affect how we support the VEIS tactic, but it’s important to remember that once VEIS starts, the standard “through the front door on side A” approach with the initial attack line may not be your best option.
So, how will you know the answers to these questions and more? It’s imperative that you perform a 360° size-up as soon as possible! No factor on the fireground should interfere with accomplishing this task, and the criticality of the size-up cannot be overstated when it comes to VEIS operations. Where some departments have the luxury of dedicated staffing and predetermined fireground assignments, others may have to prioritize tactical decisions based on the situation at hand and available staffing. Once you complete size-up, you can make smart decisions about how you assign tasks based on your department’s available assets.
As illustrated in this short video by the Virginia Beach Fire Department (VBFD), it does not take long for conditions to change rapidly, even at what you might consider a “bread-and-butter” fire in your organization. The VBFD shared their story because there are lessons to be learned for everyone. They conducted a size-up. They had good communications. They recognized the opportunity to conduct a VEIS operation. Still, things went south fast. If you watch the video and use the lessons to help you craft your standard operating procedures (SOPs) relating to VEIS, perhaps you can improve your chances of success in your jurisdiction.
UL-FSRI produced this video to demonstrate the difference in 2nd-floor room temperatures when the interior door is open or closed. It is only one of many potential VEIS scenarios, but it provides some very important information that you should consider in the decision-making process. We’ve learned that isolation significantly increases survivability; getting water on the fire fast increases those chances even more, and that’s the engine company’s job.
- Engine companies supporting VEIS must place their hoseline in service as quickly as possible and in a manner that best protects your fellow firefighters and any potential victims still inside the IDLH atmosphere. This could mean considering an alternative entry point or even darkening the fire from the exterior before making entry to buy time for the VEIS team to do its job. The more information you have, the better informed your decisions will be.
- It is imperative that all tactics are communicated effectively on the fireground to avoid potentially deadly assumptions on how companies may be executing their assigned responsibilities, especially when those tactics deviate from SOPs. Moreover, if tactics change, it is vital that those changes be communicated immediately.
- Your arrival at the fireground is not the time you should be testing anything. You must train with your personnel to determine the most effective engine company tactics in support of VEIS operations for your department. Be honest and practical when you train; work within the normal constraints you have in terms of staffing and how quickly it arrives on the fireground as you develop your procedures.
From the engine company perspective, failure to consider adjusting tactics in response to VEIS operations can potentially increase the risk to the very people you are trying to protect. Although we all agree that we will “risk a lot to save a lot” (it is our job, hands down), that doesn’t mean we should ignore the obvious. You must give proper consideration to initial attack line placement in relation to VEIS operations. Rescue is the top priority at any fire, but failure to protect those who are conducting the search can result in not only victim loss, but firefighter loss as well.
Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania and the Director of The First Twenty’s Firefighter Functional Training Advisory Panel. Kerrigan is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and holds a Master’s Degree in Executive Fire Service Leadership. He is a PA State Fire Academy Suppression Level Instructor as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College, Neumann University, and Immaculata University. Connect with Kerrigan at firstname.lastname@example.org, on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2. Follow The First Twenty on Twitter @thefirsttwenty.